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Google Targets Revenge Porn in Weakest Way Possible

Google has announced a new policy regarding revenge porn:

We’ve heard many troubling stories of “revenge porn”: an ex-partner seeking to publicly humiliate a person by posting private images of them, or hackers stealing and distributing images from victims’ accounts. Some images even end up on “sextortion” sites that force people to pay to have their images removed.

Our philosophy has always been that Search should reflect the whole web. But revenge porn images are intensely personal and emotionally damaging, and serve only to degrade the victims—predominantly women. So going forward, we’ll honor requests from people to remove nude or sexually explicit images shared without their consent from Google Search results. This is a narrow and limited policy, similar to how we treat removal requests for other highly sensitive personal information, such as bank account numbers and signatures, that may surface in our search results.

In the coming weeks we’ll put up a web form people can use to submit these requests to us, and we’ll update this blog post with the link.

We know this won’t solve the problem of revenge porn—we aren’t able, of course, to remove these images from the websites themselves—but we hope that honoring people’s requests to remove such imagery from our search results can help.

While I applaud Google’s incredibly belated effort to do something about a longstanding problem and agree with its baseline policy that search should cover the whole Web, this is the least proactive way of addressing the problem one can imagine. Having a way to easily contact Google to get known images removed is a start. But why not, instead of removing offending images from search one-by-one, ban entire sites that primarily traffic in this practice?

I’m not advocating removing, say, Reddit from the search results. But Google could certainly remove specific subreddits that traffic in revenge porn. And there are whole sites out there that are nothing but purported images and videos of ex-wives and ex-girlfriends. Once discovered, why not simply remove them from search results?

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Gustopher says:

    I’m not advocating removing, say, Reddit from the search results. But Google could certainly remove specific subreddits that traffic in revenge porn.

    Why not just remove all of Reddit?

    What value is there in Google doing fine-grained censorship (is there a less pejorative word for this? Google isn’t policing the web, just removing things from their results) for websites, rather than using a big hammer and having website operators clean up their own messes?

    If anything, the latter would have more effect in getting this stuff off the web, or at least off the easily accessed parts. Does Reddit not have links from one subreddit to another? Or a search function of its own? A fine-grained policy from Google leaves all of that untouched, so the revenge porn is still there, just one step further away.

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  2. @Gustopher:

    Why not just remove all of Reddit?

    Because most of reddit has nothing to with porn, much less revenge pron.

    To give a personal example, /r/Guildwars2 has become one of the main forums for people who play that game. How does punishing them help with the revenge porn problem?

    Does Reddit not have links from one subreddit to another? Or a search function of its own? A fine-grained policy from Google leaves all of that untouched, so the revenge porn is still there, just one step further away.

    By that logic, Google should delist outsidethebeltway.com too. After all, someone COULD put a link to revenge porn in a comment.

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  3. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    By that logic, Google should delist outsidethebeltway.com too. After all, someone COULD put a link to revenge porn in a comment.

    And, if that were a common here, I think that would be appropriate. Delist the site until the owners clean up the problem.

    Reddit doesn’t just happen to contain subreddits that are a cesspool of humanity, they choose to be a place that welcomes a cesspool of humanity to create subreddits.

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  4. MBunge says:

    I have no problem with Google removing revenge porn sites from search results or banning websites that host revenge porn images. This is how you deal with the issue, not by getting the government involved and trampling the First Amendment.

    Mike

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @MBunge: I don’t think there’s a First Amendment right to distribute nude or sexually explicit photographs of people who haven’t given their consent.

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  6. MBunge says:

    @James Joyner: If you own that photo, you damn well have First Amendment rights to do with it what you will.

    Now, if you take a nude photo of someone without their consent and violate their right to privacy doing so, that’s obviously different. But if I take a photo of myself and voluntarily give it to someone else or consent to someone taking a photo of me, what possible legal right do I have to control what that someone does with the photo? Beyond the photo being part of an effort to libel, slander or defame me, of course.

    Mike

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @MBunge:

    I take a photo of myself and voluntarily give it to someone else or consent to someone taking a photo of me, what possible legal right do I have to control what that someone does with the photo?

    Giving explicit photographs of yourself, especially in digital form, is stupid given how easily they can be redistributed. But doing so transfers no legal right to the photo. Generally speaking, photographs taken in private can only be redistributed with the express written consent of the person or persons depicted. That’s almost absolutely the case with commercial distribution, such as the sites in question.

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  8. mantis says:

    @Gustopher:

    Reddit doesn’t just happen to contain subreddits that are a cesspool of humanity, they choose to be a place that welcomes a cesspool of humanity to create subreddits.

    Reddit welcomes anyone to create subreddits about anything. That’s what is great about it.

    Why not just remove all of Reddit?

    If Google starts eliminating hugely popular websites based on subjective judgements about the behavior of small fractions of those sites’ users, it will lose credibility and market share as people migrate to search engines that don’t censor massive parts of the Web. That’s why.

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  9. ACS says:

    This entire conversation is predicated on the idea that Google isn’t doing anything to sites which host revenge porn. That actually isn’t true: sites hosting revenge porn are going to be aggressively downranked, though not delisted. (The problems with delisting are adequately discussed above.)

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